W. W. Phelps (Mormon)

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W. W. Phelps
Photo of W. W. Phelps
Personal details
BornWilliam Wines Phelps
(1792-02-17)February 17, 1792
Hanover Township, New Jersey, US
DiedMarch 17, 1872(1872-03-17) (aged 80)
Salt Lake City, Utah Territory
Resting placeSalt Lake City Cemetery
40°46′37″N 111°51′29″W / 40.777°N 111.858°W / 40.777; -111.858 (Salt Lake City Cemetery)
OccupationChurch printer
TitleScribe to Joseph Smith, composer of numerous LDS hymns
Spouse(s)Stella Waterman
ParentsEnon Phelps
Mehitable Goldsmith

William Wines Phelps (February 17, 1792 – March 7, 1872) was an early leader of the Latter Day Saint movement. He printed the first edition of the Book of Commandments that became a standard work of the church and wrote numerous hymns, some of which are included in the current version of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' (LDS Church) hymnal. He was at times both close to and at odds with church leadership. He testified against Joseph Smith, providing evidence that helped persuade authorities to arrest Smith. He was excommunicated three times and rejoined the church each time. He was a ghostwriter for Smith. Phelps was called by Smith to serve as assistant president of the church in Missouri[1] and as a member of the Council of Fifty. After Smith's death, Phelps supported Brigham Young, who was the church's new president.

Early life[edit]

Phelps was born in Hanover Township, New Jersey on February 17, 1792. He was named after American Revolutionary War general William Wines (also spelled "Winds").[2] His father, Enon Phelps, and mother, Mehitable Goldsmith,[3] moved the family to Homer, New York, in 1800.[4] Phelps was a descendant of the Puritan leader William Phelps.[5] He was mostly self-taught, acquiring knowledge in various areas such as theology, meteorology, and history.[2] He once sought the office of lieutenant governor of New York.[6][3] He worked as an apprentice to a printer.[2]

On April 28, 1815, he married Sally Waterman in Smyrna, New York.[7] The pair had ten children: eight daughters and two sons.[3] After marrying Sally, Phelps began publishing the Western Courier in Homer[4] in 1820. In this capacity, "he verbally attacked his foes and they him."[2] He next moved to Trumansburgh, Tompkins County, New York, where he edited the anti-Masonic newspaper Lake Light. In 1827, he relocated to Canandaigua, New York, where he published and edited another anti-Masonic newspaper, the Ontario Phoenix.[4] Phelps was described by Dean Jessee as "one of [the] founders" of the anti-Masonic movement in New York.[5]: 650–651 

Involvement in Latter Day Saint movement[edit]

Phelps purchased a copy of the Book of Mormon from Parley P. Pratt[3] on April 9, 1830, just three days after Church of Christ was organized.[8][9] He and his wife Sally Waterman read the book and "became converted to its truth."[2] Phelps then met Joseph Smith on December 24, 1830,[4] and became convinced that Smith was a prophet. On April 29, 1831, Phelps was imprisoned at Lyons, New York, by a "couple of Presbyterian traders, for a small debt, for the purpose, as [he] was informed, of 'keeping [him] from joining the Mormons.'"[10]

Kirtland, Ohio[edit]

Photograph of a two-columned newspaper. The heading reads: "The Evening and the Morning Star, volume one, Independence, Missouri, June 1832"
June 1832 edition of the Evening and Morning Star, published by W. W. Phelps

Phelps moved to Kirtland, Ohio in 1831.[3] He soon visited Joseph Smith and asked him to ask God for an answer as to what Phelps should do. Smith delivered a revelation (now known as section 55 of the Doctrine and Covenants) in which Phelps was encouraged to join the church, preach as a missionary, and be the printer for the church.[2] He was then baptized on June 16, 1831.[4] He was subsequently chosen "to head printing and publishing for the Church"[3] a few days later, on June 20.[4] He moved to Jackson County, Missouri in 1832[7] and spearheaded the church's publishing arm, W. W. Phelps & Co., in Independence, Missouri,[2] where he edited the Evening and Morning Star from June 1832[3] to 1833.[4] He was also superintendent of the local schools.[3] On July 20, 1833, while working to publish the church's Book of Commandments, a mob of vigilantes attacked Phelps's home, seizing printing materials, destroying the press, and throwing Phelps's family and furniture out-of-doors.[11][12] Most of the copies of the Book of Commandments were destroyed in the raid.[4] He fled to Clay County, Missouri,[7] where he was called as Assistant President of the Church in Missouri on July 3, 1834.[4]

In the early part of 1835, Phelps and his son, Waterman, were called to Kirtland, arriving on May 16, 1835, and departing on April 9, 1836. They resided with Joseph Smith's family temporarily.[13] During his stay in Kirtland, Phelps acted as "co-steward over the modern revelations" alongside Joseph Smith, editing the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants for publication.[3] He was also tasked with editing and publishing the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate.[2] Phelps donated US$500 towards the erection of the Kirtland Temple[3] and was present for the establishment of the School of the Prophets.[13] In Kirtland, he helped print the first Latter Day Saint hymnal in 1835,[4] which included his own hymn, "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning",[2] sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.[14] Phelps wrote "at least thirty-five of the ninety hymns" included in the first LDS hymnal.[2]

In late June or early July 1835, Joseph Smith acquired Egyptian papyri from Michael Chandler, and Phelps began assisting with the translation of what would become the Book of Abraham[13][3] in the Pearl of Great Price, acting as Smith's scribe.[7] On January 13, 1836, Phelps was tasked with compiling the "rules and regulations" of the Kirtland Temple.[4]

Far West, Missouri[edit]

From 1834, Phelps was a counselor to David Whitmer in the presidency of the church in Missouri,[15] and, in that capacity, he helped found the town of Far West, Missouri, purchasing the land for the town using church funds alongside John Whitmer.[16] He served as postmaster in Far West.[3] Phelps was called before the High Council on March 10, 1838, and was accused of profiting from Far West land deals and reneging on a $2,000 contribution to "the house of the Lord" that was not paid. On March 10, 1838, he was excommunicated from the church. In June 1838, Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Lyman E. Johnson were warned to leave Far West, "or a more fatal calamity shall befall you."[17] In November 1838, Phelps was summoned to be tried a witness at the treason hearing of Smith in Missouri. According to The Joseph Smith Papers, "his testimony helped lead to Smith's incarceration in the Liberty, Missouri, jail in winter 1838–1839."[18]

Excommunication and rebaptism[edit]

Unlike Cowdery and the Whitmers, Phelps remained in Far West after "the dissenters" were warned to leave in June 1838. He appears to have had a short-lived détente with church leadership. On July 8, 1838, Smith received a revelation saying that Phelps and fellow dissenter, Frederick G. Williams, could be ordained as elders and serve missions abroad. At the time of the Mormon surrender of Far West, Phelps was one of the Mormon negotiators.[19] But during the Richmond hearings of November 1838, Phelps was one of several who bore witness against Smith and other leaders, aiding in their imprisonment in Missouri until April 1839.[20] This led to Phelps's excommunication in Quincy, Illinois on March 17, 1839.[19] He then moved to Dayton, Ohio.[4] In June 1840, Phelps pleaded for forgiveness in a letter to Smith. Smith replied with an offer of full fellowship, and ended with a variant of Charles Wesley's couplet, "'Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first are friends again at last.'"[21][22][23] Phelps thus reunited with the church through rebaptism sixteen months after his excommunication.[3] He moved back to Kirtland in May 1841.[4]

Nauvoo years[edit]

Phelps served a brief mission in the eastern United States in 1841.[4] He then moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he donated $1,000 to the construction of the Nauvoo Temple and worked there in as an ordinance worker.[3] On August 27, 1841, he replaced Robert B. Thompson as Smith's clerk. Beginning in February 1843, Phelps became the ghostwriter of many of Smith's important written works of the Nauvoo period, including "General Joseph Smith's Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys" of November 1843; Smith's theodemocratic presidential platform of January 1844; and "The Voice of Innocence", which was presented to and unanimously approved by the Relief Society in February 1844 to rebut claims of polygamy in Nauvoo.[24] Phelps also worked alongside John Taylor in editing the Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor and Willard Richards in compiling Joseph Smith's personal history.[4] The latter effort eventually became History of the Church.[2]

sepia-toned picture of a man with dark hair and deep-set eyes, wearing a dark suit coat, white shirt, and cravat
W. W. Phelps, ca. 1850–1860

Phelps was endowed on December 9, 1843[25] and received his "second anointing" on February 2, 1844, promising him exaltation.[26] He was also made a member of the Council of Fifty[27] and the Nauvoo City Council.[4] In Nauvoo, Phelps spoke out in favor of the destruction of an opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. He believed that the city charter gave the church leaders power to declare the newspaper a nuisance. Shortly afterwards, the press and type were carried into the street and destroyed.[28] After the death of Joseph Smith, Phelps gave the eulogy at his funeral.[2]

During the succession crisis in 1844, Phelps sided with Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve.[3] In an effort to maintain order in the church, "he used his considerable influence in August and September 1844 to sustain the Twelve Apostles as leaders during the succession crisis."[2] In 1846, he entered into plural marriage, marrying Laura Stowell and Elizabeth Dunn on February 2, 1846, in Nauvoo.[3] He was excommunicated for the third time on December 9, 1847, for entering into an unauthorized polygamous marriage, but he was rebaptized two days later.[29]

Westward exodus, death, and legacy[edit]

Phelps took part in the Mormon Exodus across the Great Plains and settled in Salt Lake City in 1848.[4] In November 1849, he left Salt Lake to explore southern Utah Territory with Parley P. Pratt.[3] Phelps also served in the Utah territorial legislature from 1851 to 1857[4] and on the board of regents for the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). He participated in the creation of the Provisional State of Deseret's constitution and wrote an almanac documenting the activities of the Latter-day Saints in Utah for fourteen years.[3] He also helped develop the Deseret alphabet and obtained the first printing press used to print the Deseret News. He wrote poems and articles for the Deseret News, as well as essays on religious topics such as the Second Coming, the priesthood, and Joseph Smith's revelations.[2] He began working as a lawyer in 1851 and "defended numerous Saints in the courts."[3] Phelps also joined the Deseret Horticultural Society and Deseret Theological Institute.[3] In 1856, he wrote the LDS hymn "If You Could Hie to Kolob" for Brigham Young.[2] He died on March 7, 1872, in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory[7] and is buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. According to attorney and author George M. McCune, "He died a faithful and zealous disciple of the restoration."[3]

Phelps' grave marker. The back is inscribed with the words "There is no end to matter/There is no end to space/There is no end to spirit/There is no end to race. There is no end to glory/There is no end to love/There is no end to being/There is no death above," from the hymn "If You Could Hie to Kolob".


Phelps is probably best known for his legacy of Mormon hymns, many of which appear in the current edition of the LDS Church's hymnal.[30]

Phelps also reworded popular hymns turning them into uniquely Latter Day Saint hymns.

* Included in the first Latter Day Saint hymnal in 1835.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The position of "assistant president of the church in Missouri" was analogous to a modern stake or area president, but with more intrinsic authority and autonomy. However, it was not the same as Assistant President of the Church, who was a member of the First Presidency.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Van Orden, Bruce A. (2016). "William W. Phelps: His Contributions to Understanding the Restoration". In Ostler, Craig James; MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Gardner, Barbara Morgan (eds.). Foundations of the Restoration: Fulfillment of the Covenant Purposes. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center. pp. 207–224. ISBN 978-1-9443-9407-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u McCune, George M. (1991). Personalities in the Doctrine and Covenants and Joseph Smith–History. Salt Lake City, Utah: Hawkes Publishing. pp. 89–91. ISBN 9780890365182.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r "William Wines Phelps". The Joseph Smith Papers. Retrieved 2021-07-24.
  5. ^ a b Phelps, Oliver Seymour; Servin, Andrew T. (1899). The Phelps Family of America and their English Ancestors. Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Eagle Publishing Company.
  6. ^ Walter Dean Bowen, "The Versatile W.W. Phelps—Mormon Writer, Educator, and Pioneer," M.S. thesis, Brigham Young University (1958): 22.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Phelps, William Wines, 1792-1872". L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library. Retrieved 2021-07-24.
  8. ^ "Minutes of a Conference" Archived 2014-05-21 at the Wayback Machine, Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2, no. 20, p. 160 (May 1832)
  9. ^ The Deseret News, 11 April 1860, pp. 45, 48.
  10. ^ "William W. Phelps (1792–1872)". Mormon History 1830-1844. Saints Without Halos. Archived from the original on 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2009-10-20.
  11. ^ "William W. Phelps: Printer unto the Church". historyofmormonism.com. Retrieved 2018-01-17.
  12. ^ F., Price, Lynn (1997). Every person in the Doctrine and Covenants. Bountiful, Utah: Horizon. ISBN 9780882905976. OCLC 37451290.
  13. ^ a b c Edward Ashment essay in "The Word of God Essays on Mormon Scripture Archived 2016-10-22 at the Wayback Machine" Edited by Dan Vogel, Signature Books 1990
  14. ^ Perkins, Keith W. (1992), "Kirtland Temple", in Ludlow, Daniel H (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing, pp. 798–799, ISBN 0-02-879602-0, OCLC 24502140
  15. ^ "Doctrine and Covenants Historical Resources: William W. Phelps". The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  16. ^ Shepard, William (2015). "Transformation of the Mormon Hierarchy at Far West, Missouri". John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. The John Whitmer Historical Association. 35 (1): 62–83. JSTOR 26317093 – via JSTOR.
  17. ^ Richard S. Van Wagoner (1994). Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books) pp. 218–19.
  18. ^ "Highlights from Documents, Volume 7: The Reconciliation of Joseph Smith and William W. Phelps". The Joseph Smith Papers. 2018-04-13. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  19. ^ a b Alexander L. Baugh. "A Community Abandoned: W. W. Phelps' 1839 Letter to Sally Waterman Phelps from Far West, Missouri." Nauvoo Journal, 10:2, 1998. p. 23/
  20. ^ Alexander L. Baugh (2010). "Joseph Smith in Northern Missouri, 1838". In Holzapfel, Richard Neitzel; Jackson, Kent P. (eds.). Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer. Provo, UT/Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center/Deseret Book.
  21. ^ "Letter to William W. Phelps, 22 July 1840". The Joseph Smith Papers. p. 158. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  22. ^ Green, Richard (1896). Works of John and Charles Wesley. C. H. Kelly. p. 158. Retrieved 31 May 2019. friends at first are friends again at last.
  23. ^ History of the Church, Vol. 4. pp. 162–64. Letter July 22, 1840, from Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois.
  24. ^ Brown, Samuel M. (17 March 2008). "The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and William Phelps". Journal of Mormon History. 34 (1): 26–62. SSRN 1107013.
  25. ^ Anderson & Bergera 2005, p. 41
  26. ^ Anderson & Bergera 2005, pp. 63–64
  27. ^ Quinn, D. Michael (1980), "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945", BYU Studies, 20 (2): 163–98, archived from the original on 2013-10-21 "The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945 - BYU Studies". Archived from the original on 2013-10-21. Retrieved 2017-11-16.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  28. ^ "Chapter 22". History of the Church, Vol. 6. p. 453.
  29. ^ Historical Department Journal, Vol. 9 p. 25. ""Archived copy". Retrieved 2016-05-12."
  30. ^ "Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". Retrieved 2009-10-20.


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